LEE was a cool guy. Now I’m not just saying that because he was my father. And I have to admit that he was bigger than life for me and I probably idolized him way beyond his achievements, though I don’t think so. He was one of nine children of my grandfather, Jacob, a delicatessen owner with whom I grew up until he passed away in his nineties; I never knew my grandmother Molly…she died young. My father’s siblings were Morris, a lawyer, Libbie who ran a children’s camp, Jenny a social worker, Frieda, a social worker, Hilda, a schizophrenic (that’s what she did for a living I guess), Harold, a store-owner, Irving who had the nickname “Winki” who was the administrator of a charitable foundation, and another sister who was killed in an auto accident as a young woman.
Leon (or Lee) was a brilliant student, president of his high school senior class, president of his College class, Captain of the College Basketball team, with a full scholarship to Cornell University, Honors graduate from Medical School, trained in Surgery at Mt. Sinai Hospital in New York with the greatest surgeons of the day, and was a Captain then a Major in WWII as a surgeon first in England and after the Invasion, in Southern France.
In almost every photograph I have of him he has either a cigarette or a pipe in his mouth. Well, maybe the pipe, but not the cigarette…which as always casually hanging from his lips, a veritable James Dean, Humphrey Bogart, Cary Grant and Cark Gable all in one.
His patients often gave him pipes, usually Meerschaums of all types and shapes or made of wood and ivory and trimmed with gold and silver, often initialed. Over the years he accumulated nearly a hundred and smoking each one was a special production big deal in my eyes. He’d select a pipe, put in the special tobacco, tamp it down with a special “tamping instrument”, light the pipe and then I’d smell that strange and wonderful aroma. That was “dad”! In between his pipe smoking he smoked Camel cigarettes; he always had the smell of tobacco about him!
When he was in his late fifties, he began coughing up blood and was eventually diagnosed with lung cancer and underwent a left pneumonectomy (removal of his entire left lung). At that time, he stopped smoking cigarettes and gave away his entire pipe collection. I kept one, a simple ordinary brown pipe with a silver trim to the bowl with his name LEE engraved on it. And sometime in the last thirty years it got misplaced and I have never found it.
After his surgery he went back to his work as a surgeon but had a difficult few years and then at age 59, succumbed to the cancer. The pipes and tobacco probably killed him. He died when I was in my second year of surgical residency training…I had planned on joining him in practice but never had the opportunity of “scrubbing” with him at the operating table. I tried smoking a pipe once but didn’t like the taste and I never smoked cigarettes.
I miss him.